For as long as it has held elections, America's voting system has disenfranchised groups of voters. 2020 is no different. From prohibiting early voting to restrictive voter registration rules and limited access to polling places, voters in some communities face significant challenges when casting their ballots. This year, the global Covid-19 pandemic has brought on further hurdles to voting safely.

Over the last 20 years, states have put barriers in front of the ballot box to further suppress groups of voters. These efforts, which received a boost when the Supreme Court blocked ballot extensions this week, have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters.

Minority-voter suppression continues to have profound implications for America's democracy. And as the country is days away from the presidential elections, it's important to understand how black people and other minority groups are disenfranchised by voting systems.

What is voter suppression?

Voter suppression is a tactic used to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of people from voting. It distinguishes itself from political campaigning in that campaigning attempts to change voting behavior, while voter suppression attempts to limit the number of people who would vote against a candidate or party.

The goal is to maintain power and manipulate political outcomes, creating results that don’t accurately reflect the will of the people. Numerous states have passed voter suppression laws targeting minority voters. In general, BIPOC individuals are disproportionately affected by suppression in comparison to white voters, as are women (more so if they are trans), students, people with disabilities, the elderly, and low-income or homeless people.

What does it mean in practice?

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in the US, elections are administered locally, and forms of voter suppression vary among jurisdictions. While states have different measures to prevent eligible voters from exercising their right to vote, many of them look as follows:

  1. Voter registration & ID restrictions: Many minority communities report barriers to voter registration such as same-day voter registration, which requires voters to provide proof of residency (e.g., utility bills, pay stub) and identity. Furthermore, several states require photo identification, which low-income, Black, and Latino voters are less likely than middle-class whites to have. In some extreme cases, the Department of Motor Vehicles' offices in minority neighborhoods were closed, making it more difficult for residents to obtain voter IDs. According to a 2016 poll, nine percent of Black and Latino voters were told that they (or someone in their household) lacked the proper identification to vote, compared to three percent of whites.
  2. Early voting: Without early voting, voters who cannot make it to the polls on Election Day will not be able to vote. African-American voters are more likely to be hourly-wage workers and cannot always get to the polls on Election Day.
  3. Voting rights: State laws prohibit Americans with past convictions from voting. This disproportionately affects African-Americans who – due to systematic racism – are more likely to end up in the prison system.
  4. Ballot extension: In a 5-3 vote, the Supreme Court reaffirmed a lower court's block on Wisconsin's plan that would have allowed ballots in the state to arrive up to six days after Election Day. This means that ballots that arrive after election day will be rejected and postal delays could disenfranchise many mail-in voters. A study found this kind of voter suppression might be powerful enough to change the outcome of the presidential election in Wisconsin.

What can you do?

Join the fight for more transparency and to reform voting laws by supporting organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and More Than a Vote, which engage in advocacy and litigation across the country to get rid of these harmful voter suppression strategies.

Write a letter to your House Representative and Senator requesting that congress pass the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act. Demand that states penalize and correct false information aimed at preventing voting or voter registration. To do that, you can use this template courtesy of the Center for American Progress.

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